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Game Changer: The F-35 and the Pacific

To understand the real value of the F-35 one must consider its operation as a fleet, not simply as an individual aircraft.

By Robbin F. Laird for

It is difficult to discuss the F-35 without actually knowing what the aircraft is and how F-35 fleets will reshape combat. But this is precisely what the budding negative commentary on the F-35 is built on – a lack of knowledge. 

Even worse, the existing 5th generation aircraft is not well known either, because of its limited numbers and its condemnation by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and President Barack Obama as a “Cold War” weapon. One could note that when the latest Korean crisis flared up, those “Cold War” mainstays, the F-22 and the B-2 (which has been flying now for more than 20 years) were called upon very quickly. And the U.S. Air Force (USAF) began to do sortie surge exercises in Hawaii and Arctic exercises in Alaska to increase the quantities of F-22s available for immediate Pacific operations. 

I have had the opportunity over the years to interview many F-22 and F-35 pilots, maintainers and builders as well as the subsystem suppliers of the F-35. Much of the capability of the aircraft, including its multiple integrated combat systems are evolutionary steps forward, and low risk systems, such as the active electronically scanned array (AESA) built by Northrop Grumman for the F-35. 

What is radically new about the F-35 is the fusion of data in the cockpit and the shaping of a new decision making capability within the aircraft and the fleet.  The aircraft permits situational decision-making, not just situational awareness.  It is a C5ISR (Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Combat Systems, Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance) aircraft, which allows the U.S. Marine Corps (USMC) alone to replace three aircraft, including an Electronic Warfare Aircraft with the F-35B. This is also why Singapore has referred to the F-35B as a “cost effective” aircraft.

But understanding the real value of the F-35 one must consider its operation as a fleet, not simply as an individual aircraft. The F-22 was built as an aircraft, which flies in 2, and 4 ship formations, but unlike the F-15, the “wingman” is miles away and not anywhere to be found in visual range. As one pilot put it to me: “When we take off together that is the last time we see each other until we land.”

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The F-35 also has the capability to operate miles away from one another, but with a major difference.  The individual airplanes are interconnected, operate in 360-degree operational space, and the machines pass the data throughout the network.  Each individual plane can see around itself for significant distances in 360 degree space, which has already underscored the need for a new generation of weapons, for existing systems such as Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missiles (AMRAAMs) operate in half or less of the space which each F-35 can see beyond itself.

It is the interconnected C5ISR delivered by the fleet, coupled with the ability to work with the off-boarding of weapons, which shapes a new way forward.  Target acquisition does not have to be limited to weapons carried on board. This means that classic distinctions between tactical fighters doing close air support, air superiority missions or air defense missions become blurred. The fleet as a whole identifies targets for the various mission sets and can guide weapons from any of its elements to a diversity of targets. The reach of the fleet is the key to the operation of the fleet, not the range of individual aircraft.

As General Hostage, the Air Combat Commander, put it during an interview Lt. General (Retired) Deptula and I conducted with him last December:

"The ability of the planes to work with each other over a secure distributed battlespace is the essential foundation from which the air combat cloud can be built.

And the advantage of the F-35 is the nature of the global fleet. Allied and American F-35s, whether USAF, USN, or USMC, can talk with one another and set up the distributed operational system. Such a development can allow for significant innovation in shaping the air combat cloud for distributed operations in support of the Joint Force Commander."

With many Pacific allies already committed to the F-35, and with the USAF and USMC planning to deploy their new aircraft to the regionin the next couple of years, a fleet of F-35s will clearly emerge in the Pacific and shape combat capabilities the next decade out.

The movement of data among the elements of the fleet will be the beginning of the 21st century equivalent to what the U.S. Navy called the “big blue blanket” over the Pacific in World War II.  Clearly, the U.S. will not have the assets to do this by itself, but with the emergence of interconnected fleets this aspiration can come closer to reality.

And with it will be the ability to build the kind of attack-defense enterprise essential to deal with the evolving threats in the Pacific, and the efforts of China to undercut the significant lynchpin role that the United States plays in the Pacific. 

An inherent characteristic of many new systems is that they are really about presence and putting a grid over an operational area, and therefore they can be used to support strike or defense within an integrated approach. In the 20th Century, surge was built upon the notion of signaling. One would deploy a particular combat capability – whether it be a Carrier Battle Group, Amphibious Ready Group, or Air Expeditionary Wing – as a marker to signal its presence and intentions to an adversary. Depending on the adversary’s response, additional forces would be sent in to escalate the threat capability.

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With the new multi-mission systems – 5th generation aircraft and Aegis for example – the key is presence and integration able to support strike or defense in a single operational presence capability. Now the adversary can not be certain that you are simply putting down a marker.

This is what former Air Force Secretary Michael Wynne calls the attack and defense enterprise. The strategic thrust of integrating modern systems is to create a grid that can operate in an area as a seamless whole, able to strike or defend simultaneously. This is enabled by the evolution of C5ISR, and it is why Wynne has underscored for more than a decade that 5th generation aircraft are not merely replacements for existing tactical systems, but a whole new approach to integrating defense and offense.

When one can add the strike and defensive systems of other players, notably missiles and sensors aboard surface ships like Aegis, then one can create the reality of what Ed Timperlake, a former fighter pilot, has described as the F-35 being able to consider Aegis as his wingman.

In fact, the ability for forward deployed F-35s to identify targets for surface ships can lead to a renaissance of the strike role of surface ships as well.  Or it can lead to what I referred to early last year as enhancing “the long reach of Aegis.” The F-35 is a global program tapping into the industrial and technological capabilities  of global allies of the United States in a unique way.  Earlier, the Aegis program built a foundation for such an approach, with nearly 25 percent of the deployed Aegis fleet now being non-American.  This led me to coin the term many years ago of the “Aegis global enterprise.”  Combing these two efforts into an integrated attack and defense capability will be game changing. 

As I have written in Proceedings Magazine:

These F-35-Aegis offense and defense bubbles can be networked throughout the Pacific to enhance the capacity of individual nations. They represent a prime example of how one country’s assets can contribute to the reach others, together establishing a scalable capability for a honeycombed force.

Overall, the enterprise lays a foundation for a global capability in sea-based missile defenses and for protecting deployed forces as well as projecting force. Power such as this is increasingly central to the freedom of action necessary for the worldwide operation of the U.S. military and our coalition partners.

In other words, the roll out of the Pacific fleet of F-35s is part of the re-shaping of the U.S, and allied military capabilities for a 21st century strategy.  And such a strategy must be able to deal with the impact of China, Korea, the Arctic opening and the challenge of securing the conveyer belt of goods and services by sea or sea lines of communication (SLOC) defense.

But this does not end the story of the impact of the F-35 on the future. Another key aspect is how the F-35 as a global enterprise can affect global investments in airpower and the growth of capabilities over time. This is a subject broader than a short article can discuss with full justice, so I will emphasize only three key points.

First, what is not often realized is that Lockheed Martin is a 30 percent “prime contractor” standing on the top of a global supply chain. And this supply chain includes many of the world’s best suppliers and subsystem providers. And foreign manufacturers produce more than 20 percent of the aircraft even at this stage as part of the global supply chain. 

This system allows the taping of capabilities, which have been, available in specific nations and unleashing their potential to support global coalitions.  The case of Japan is instructive whereby the participation of the Japanese in building parts for the F-35 means they are building for the global coalition not just for Japan.

Second, the F-35 is built around a global sustainment model. This means that the Singapore F-35Bs will be supported by Singapore who could do the same for the USMC F-35Bs.  The opportunity and ability to build hubs and training ranges in the Pacific with hubs and ranges in Canada and Australia and hubs in Japan, South Korea, Singapore, Alaska, Hawaii and Guam provides an opportunity to re-shape how sustainment can be done in around the world.

Third, Japan, like Italy, is building a final check out or assembly facility for the F-35, which can function, as well as a matience, repair, and operartions (MRO) facility for allies. Although intended to serve their own needs the Italians and Japanese are in effect putting in place maintenance facilities or MRO facilities which the U.S. Air Force, USN and USMC are able to use in two key regions, central to American interests.

Fourth, the weapons revolution necessary to catch up with 5th generation aircraft can be the focus of global, not just American investments. Even though the U.S. has been the core architect for the aircraft, the implementation of the fleet will not be solely and perhaps primarily American. The diversity of global weapon suppliers – European, Israeli, and Asian – will seek to integrate their products onto the F-35 and integration on one set of F-35s makes them available to the fleet.

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A totally ignored aspect of the aircraft as a weapon system is weapons integration. The software integration of a weapon on one set of aircraft will be available to the fleet.

This means that the weapons to be integrated on Block 4 software F-35s, which includes the MBDA’s new Meteor Missiles, the Kongsberg Joint Strike Missile or the new Turkish missiles, can be purchased directly by Asian governments for their aircraft as well. This is providing for a global investment in the strike capabilities of the F-35 fleet.

In short, the F-35 will be an important fixture of allied and American defense in the Pacific and will bring Europe and the Pacific together inside the aircraft and arming the aircraft in the years ahead.  It will be a key part of shaping new concepts of operations, which will be essential to the safety, and security of America and its allies in a troubled world. 

Dr. Robbin F. Laird is a Military and Security Analyst, the co-founder of Second Line of Defense, and a Member of the Editorial Board of Contributors, AOL Defense.